Family Vacations

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(HOST) Today Commentator Philip Baruth compares the traditional family vacation to the traditional chain gang, and finds the two not entirely dissimilar.

(BARUTH) I’m the youngest of four children, and when we went on family vacations in the late sixties, there was a very special place for me to ride: that small shelf that all big American sedans had right beneath the rear window. My mom would lovingly tuck a blanket and a pillow back there, maybe my stuffed giraffe, and I was good to go.

I loved it then, but I find it disturbing now. I had no car seat. I didn’t even have a seat belt, and – everybody else did. So if my Dad mashed the brake, there was nothing to prevent me from flying headlong toward the windshield. In fact, because the little rear shelf was made out of plastic, and my mother had me on a synthetic blanket, I was bedded down on the closest thing to a frictionless surface man has yet devised.

I can’t avoid the suspicion that my parents were sort of cavalier about my safety. But when I remember that both parents were heavy smokers, and that we couldn’t ever put the windows down because it would compete with the air-conditioning, then I’m certain: my parents were trying to launch me out of that slick little firing chamber, and they wanted the car chaotic with smoke so that they could later tell police they hadn’t seen a thing.

Now we’re so much more enlightened. My wife and I have two children but we’ve bought and sold and traded about twenty-six car seats. This is because my wife once heard that you should change car seats every four years because the plastic deteriorates. I point out that plastic can go four thousand years without deteriorating, but the discussion always ends with a new $200 car seat anyway.

I was thinking about all of this on our last family vacation of the summer, to the Herkimer Diamond mine, outside of Herkimer, New York. Herkimer diamonds are these cool quartz crystals that look a lot like diamonds, and at the mine they give you a fluorescent orange wristband and a sledge hammer and they turn you loose. The idea is to break open massive rocks scattered in a huge pit, and ideally you find gorgeous diamonds nestled inside. My six-year-old Gwendolyn is mad for jewels and she sat under a shade tree and barked out instructions. My wife and my mother, using the excuse of caring for our 1-year-old, stayed in the air-conditioned snack bar.

So there I am, breaking rocks in the broiling sun, and I have an epiphany. I look down at my wristband, my sledgehammer, the rocks, and I realize this is no family vacation: this is Cool Hand Luke. Suddenly I get it: we are victims of our parents in childhood, and victims of our children in parenthood, and the family vacation is nothing more than the most efficient way to travel from one state of helplessness to the other.

But here’s the upshot: Gwendolyn found one miniscule orange diamond, and it’s sitting now in a little glass bottle on the shelf next to her bed, and it’s her most prized possession. And if she were to lose it tomorrow, I’d drive another seven hours and break rocks in the sun all day to find her a new one.

Not because it would make sense, but because she’s family.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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